Calhoun McBride: sixteen, a runaway from an orphan train, works night shifts at Snopes Brewery; hustles on the banks of the Mississippi River, trying to save money for a train ticket out West to Wyoming. Clement Cartwright: son of Irish and German immigrants, his father worked too at Snopes Brewery; left St. Louis to become an architect. Belasco Snopes: current owner of his family’s brewery, and heir to their fortune; twisted, cruel, addicted to cocaine, possibly mad. Dolores Brattridge: a sheltered member of St. Louis society; blessed, or cursed, with visions that may or may not result from the laudanum she sometimes adds to her morning coffee.
These four characters alternately narrate successive chapters of River Runs Red by Scott Alexander Hess, set during the hot and humid summer of 1891 in St. Louis, where their lives come together, explosively. Clement has returned from Chicago, commissioned to construct the Landsworth building, the first skyscraper in St. Louis (and second in the world); one stormy night he finds himself by the banks of the Mississippi River, where he meets Calhoun. After their midnight swim they begin an ongoing association that eventually Snopes uncovers and exploits, determined to discredit Clement. Dolores, propelled by dark premonitions of death and doom, tries to thwart them, only to exacerbate them further until they escalate climatically at Calhoun’s trial.
Hess has written another gritty, steamy (in all senses of the word), and atmospheric historical novel. He travels effortlessly from high society parlors to the shacks of the river drabs, easily capturing the cadences of cultured classes, and those lower down the social ladder. River Runs Red is aptly named: at times brutal, even in civilized arenas an undercurrent of violence flows throughout, be it from Man or Nature, and given to erupting unexpectedly.
One might not associate fin de siècle St. Louis, the “Gateway to the West,” with such southern noir; but River Runs Red combines the sultry decadence associated with the Mississippi Delta, with a veneer of eastern gentility, and spices it up with otherwordly elements, both European and non-European. It may be a short novel, but it packs a punch, like a river rat boxer. And like the Mississippi, the short chapters of River Runs Red lap at your ankles, but before you know it, the riptide of the story has drawn you in, and then there’s no way to resist the current of this narrative.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske